Sound Shapes was one of the first original titles revealed for the PlayStation Vita that genuinely captured the attention of gamers because of its unique blend of music and platforming. Now that it’s finally been released on both PS3 and Vita, the game proves to have been well worth the initial curiosity, and the wait. Queesy Games, creators of Everyday Shooter, are the developers behind Sound Shapes, but the end product is in fact an elaborate collaboration between musicians, graphic artists, and level designers working at the peak of their talents.
There is no real narrative driving the campaign in Sound Shapes, which leaves the expressive music and visuals with the task of conveying a sense of story. You control a circular blob. You move using the analog sticks and jump by pressing the X button. The blob has the ability to cling to surfaces that do no feature thick, dark borders and which are generally light in color. You can move around more quickly by holding the R or square button, which also has the effect of releasing the blob’s adherence to its surface. It's an intuitive and straightforward control scheme. The game provides a comfortable amount of in-air control and when new gameplay elements are introduced, such as swimming or vehicles, the new controls are simple to grasp.
Like all platformers, Sound Shapes features a central collectible that is strewn about its levels and leads players towards the end of the level. These coins also function as musical notes. By collecting these notes you contribute to the build up of the stage’s accompanying theme. Every stage begins with a simple melody or rhythm that grows more sophisticated with each note collected. Each stage comes with a certain number of notes to collect, but they're never hidden or located out of the way, which is good because you would be prevented from fully experiencing each track if your collection was incomplete. I didn’t miss a single note on my initial playthrough of the very linear campaign. In that sense, the game does not reward exploration, which may sound slightly odd for a platformer.
Coming into contact with red objects will cause your blob to die and return to the nearest checkpoint (which is never truly far away; in fact, most rooms come with several). There is no lives system or game over screens. The only real penalty for death is that you will lose any notes you may have collected since you last reached a checkpoint. This mitigates the game’s difficulty considerably because, although you'll found yourself dying quite often, you'll rarely ever feel frustrated.
The game’s stages are arranged into five albums, each featuring the work of a different musician and graphics artist. The levels within each album are thematically and musically related, whether the theme is the oppression of working in the corporate world or an environmental tour through different thermal settings. The visual style is wild and constantly changing, and the color scheme can change completely from one room to the next. The game always runs smoothly and is another testament to the continual power of 2D visuals in games. My one gripe is that it is sometimes difficult to discern between which surfaces you can and cannot cling to because the blob can cling to surprisingly dark structures at times.
The level editor is your opportunity to create levels and music of your own. Many of the controls for level creation involve using the front and rear touch screens of the Vita, which makes it very intuitive. You unlock many of the assets used in the campaign levels after completing them. Musically, you can place note coins anywhere in the level, with higher positions producing higher pitches. Geometrically, you have the ability to design levels as complex or simple as you wish, complete with all of the hazards and enemies that gave you such a hard time during the campaign. As with any comprehensive level editor, creating quality content is something that takes time and serious thought, even more so with the added importance given to the musical accompaniment.
Sound Shapes allows you to upload and download user created levels constructed through this extensive level editor. Thus far, the community offerings fare rather poorly. Many are simple affairs that last 30 seconds, with music and layouts that try to replicate well-known games or other popular creative properties. I do not foresee the community offerings matching up to the excellent campaign levels in terms of quality any time soon, but the potential is certainly there.
Once you finish the campaign you unlock the game’s Death Mode and Beats School. Death Mode lives up to its name by being soul-crushingly difficult. Think of these challenges as the B-sides to each level. Small sections of each level are repurposed with a number of hazards as the game tasks you to collect a certain number of coins within a few seconds. You will fail frequently, but these challenges extend the length of the game and constitute most of the Sound Shape’s Trophies, making them well worth the effort.
Beats School provides a more musically oriented challenge. This mode tasks you with recreating musical sequences by ear. The purpose is to train and motivate players to create their own music for their levels. I personally was not as enthused with this feature. I have a background in music and used to perform exercises like this all the time, but even I found this difficult because the interface isn't particularly intuitive and the game provides very little in the way of explanation. Those who enjoy a trial and error approach to learning will find lots to like about Beats School, however, and by the end of it will understand the ins and outs of music creation in Sound Shapes.
The campaign, while stellar, doesn’t last long. Each level takes around 5 minutes on average to complete, which means that the 24 tracks are over after only a couple of hours. Sound Shapes costs $14.99, but for that price you can download the game onto both your Vita and PS3, which is a pricing model I ardently support. Connectivity between the two versions of the game is simple as well, with cloud saving and transferring options. I spent most of my time with the Vita version, but the game is practically identical when played on the console. The one difference between the two versions is that the Vita touch controls in certain situations are replaced by the Dualshock 3’s more traditional control inputs.
If you are staunchly against the type of music featured in Sound Shapes, I suspect you would not be motivated to play it on the strength of the platforming or visuals alone. It's the three elements working in tandem that produces a truly 'one of a kind' game. Personally, I was not fond of the music of Deadmaus or Beck before playing Sound Shapes. The game didn't make me an instant fan of either one, but the albums inspired by their music are the highlight of the game. Beck’s “Cities”, thanks to the brilliant incorporation of lyrics, is one of the most memorable levels I’ve ever played in a videogame.
Sound Shapes’ expressive fusion of music and gameplay places it in the company of other portable titles that boast ample visual and musical charm, like Lumines and LocoRoco. Although Sound Shapes is both one of my favorite videogame and music releases of the year so far, it's let down by a campaign which is simply over far too soon. The lasting appeal of Sound Shapes rests on the strength of the online community that will hopefully mature and produce levels that are both memorable and original. As it stands, Sound Shapes is fun and unique enough to warrant your investment of both time and effort.
This review is based on a PlayStation Network version of Sound Shapes for the PlayStation Vita.